Dawn of War
Dawn of War is the latest in a line of titles based on the hugely imaginative and detailed fantasy and sci-fi worlds of Games Workshop. Most of its predecessors fell flat, failing to do justice to Games Workshop’s distinctive creations. Dawn of War is the first game to really capitalize on the excellent scope and background provided by Warhammer 40,000.
Dawn of War - again differentiating from its predecessors - is an RTS (real-time strategy) game, and an impressive-looking one at that. RTS games are not usually known for their graphical quality, but Dawn of War breaks this tradition. The different units are all superbly drawn, with all four races (Space Marines, Orks, Chaos and Eldar) having distinct characteristics. The terrain is modelled to give a distinct sci-fi feel with its ruined cityscapes and lush jungles. One of the most welcome aspects of the game is the ability to - just like in the real hobby - customize your armies with their own colour schemes. This gives multiplayer a new dimension, with dozens of highly customized armies (sporting individual colour schemes and insignia) slugging it out.
The animation is possibly the game’s strongest point - there is a real ferocity to the combat. Troops will hack and lunge at each other with an assortment of weaponry, bodies tumbling to the earth as they die. The more powerful characters make battles look particularly spectacular as they smash into enemy units, sending them flying backwards. The effort put into individual animation for certain units reaps great results - it is hugely satisfying to watch a Space Marine dreadnought pluck up a struggling ork and crush it before flinging the carcass halfway across the screen. Nothing can beat the Chaos Bloodthirster however, with the way it will snatch up an enemy unit, toss it into the air and then smack it with its axe so that the unfortunate enemy sails through the air like a baseball. No expense is spared with the animation - even the mundane routine of constructing a field base is enlivened by the way buildings are created. For the Orks, ramshackle planes swoop down and drop the required building in a haze of smoke and flying earth, while for Chaos the buildings are summoned and spin through the air, the ground beneath lit by a malevolent red glow.
Graphics, as we all know, don’t make a game. Ultimately it’s down to gameplay. Dawn of War, just like its new approach to visuals and animation, adds new dimensions here to the tried-and-tested formula of the RTS. Rather than having to worry about gatherer-units rushing about collecting resources, resources are generated by ‘strategic points’ at a constant rate. The more of these ‘points’ that a player possesses, the higher cumulative amount of resources (requisition) they will receive. ‘Power’ on the other hand is generated by simply building plasma generators. This makes for streamlined resource-gathering, letting players focus on the actual fighting. Another feature is the ‘reinforce’ button - simply click on this at any time and after a time-delay a new unit will appear to bolster your squad. These original features create problems however. The streamlined resource-gathering system means that players can focus on constructing an army, with the result that skirmish games against both the computer and human opponents often lead to the massing of units with which to swamp the enemy. The ‘reinforce’ button also has the adverse effect of sometimes making battles drag on for long periods of time.
The battles are the main problem with Dawn of War. Make no mistake, there are few more impressive sights than the flickering of rapid gunfire and the earth-shattering explosions, accompanied by battle-cries and screams. The problem is that the frantic nature of the battles can become monotonous when the battles drag on interminably. I played one game online where one particular gunfight lasted over fifteen minutes. At first it was great but gradually you realise the need to take a break. You need to have a few quiet minutes to reflect upon your strategy and think about what your next move will be. The trouble is, quite often you won’t get to take a breather from the action. The fights drag on and on. Some people will undoubtedly like this, which is down to personal preference. Personally I prefer RTS games to be a little slower, with an emphasis on strategy rather than unit-massing.
Another problem is the way that rather than having individual units, in Dawn of War units are bought as squads, which you can then reinforce to enlarge them. The only individual units are the hero/leader units that can be joined to squads. This squad-based system means that battles depend more on how many units you have rather than your actual skill at manipulating them. In other RTS games such as Warcraft and Age of Mythology, units are individual. Each soldier can be moved by himself, or collectively if you wish. This means that if one unit is taking damage, you can remove them from the fight. The eventual result is that players who are more skilful at this unit manipulation (known in the RTS world as ‘microing’) tend to beat players who are less skilful. Therefore, battles are usually to a certain degree about skill. In a match between two equal armies, the more highly-skilled player will tend to win. Games are won and lost by skill. In Dawn of War, this isn’t the case. Matches are often won by the player who has massed the most units. There is nothing wrong with this; in fact some people might prefer it. But for the more hardcore RTS fans, it seems a little lightweight.
Online gaming was clearly what Relic had in mind when they designed Dawn of War. This is evidenced by the distinctly average single-player campaign which lacks the original and cinematic experience of, for example, the campaign in Warcraft. Still, it provides some short-term interest. With the focus on multiplayer gaming, it is surprising that so few people seem to play Dawn of War online. There are rarely more than 400 people online at any given time, and most of these only play custom games. Laddering is therefore made difficult as there seems to be a lack of competitive players. This doesn’t detract from the game of course, but it undermines its greater ambitions.
All in all, Dawn of War possesses great graphics and animation, with atmospheric sound and music to add to the experience. The gameplay is sometimes let down by the frantic, unrelenting nature of the battles and the way that unit-massing tends to win games. Of course, this may well suit some players. The game could serve as a good introduction for new players who are unfamiliar with RTS. Dawn of War is a solid, enjoyable RTS game but ultimately fails to challenge the monopoly held over the RTS market by Warcraft, Starcraft and the Total War series.
Review by James Long 2004 © www.theorderofmidnight.blogspot.com